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Weekender Correspondent

It only seems like Rob Thomas is a member of Santana.

After all, it was Thomas' soulful vocals and songwriting that helped propel Carlos Santana to the most magical season of his career last year.

That's Thomas, frontman of Matchbox Twenty, who was honored with three Grammy awards for "Smooth," his 1999 chart-topping collaboration with Carlos. The track earned Thomas "Song of the Year" honors; the "Record of the Year" Grammy (along with Carlos, producer Matt Serletic, and engineer/mixer David Thoener); and "Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals," which he shared with Carlos.

It was the second-highest tally of the 42nd Annual Grammy awards, following Carlos with eight.

It was a real honor to be part of the Santana project, Thomas says over the phone. "Carlos had a giant parade going on and I got to be part of it," he says.

It all was a happy accident he explains, helped by the fact that Matchbox Twenty had planned a break at the time that Thomas was invited to record with Santana.

"Smooth" became a really good bridge, Thomas says, keeping Matchbox from the "Where are they now" file.

"Pop music eats its young. We had to tend to our own lives (after touring extensively). We were going to take that break regardless. The Santana thing came out of the blue totally."

Originally, Thomas was just supposed to write on it.

"I was a fan so it was a fan experience," he adds. "When I first met him I couldn't talk to him. I waited until he said something."

Carlos and his musicians became like an extended family to him. "Carlos and the band were all so generous. It was the best group of touring musicians I've ever seen."

Carlos does everything for the right reasons, Thomas says. "He plays music because he loves it. Celebrity hasn't changed that. He says you play music for a reason and you know where your talent comes from. You should go out and be of service to that talent you were given."

Thomas tries to take that philosophy back to his work with Matchbox Twenty, who, in addition to Thomas, are Kyle Cook, guitar, vocals; Adam Gaynor, guitar, vocals; Brian Yale, bass; Paul Doucette, drums.

"Carlos' view makes you realize you are like a conduit, you are an in-between space between what you do and where your talent comes from. You can't take credit for it. You just have to be thankful." Career really is secondary Thomas says. He says his focus is on his music, not his career.

Thomas believes "Mad Season," the group's follow-up to their 10-million selling "Yourself Or Someone Like You" 1996 debut, represents growth.

"We couldn't have made this record five years ago. On the first record, we didn't have it in us as a unit or individually. We went out for three and a half years, playing music all over the world and we were in a constant state of taking in all these experiences.

"Five years ago we were a group of kids who never left certain areas of America and then we traveled the world four or five times, playing music. Hopefully you carry some of that with you back in the studio. We've all grown up."

The music industry seems to be recognizing that in nominating "Mad Season" as "rock album" and Thomas' "Bent" as "rock song" of the year in the upcoming Grammy Awards.

As positive as the Santana experience was, Thomas still was champing at the bit to put out a new Matchbox Twenty album.

"In between records we took a long break. We had been out 3 and a half years and it was wearing thin pushing the same 12 songs," he says. "People could see through that. I think I had two albums of material ready. There's a personal pride part that wants you to say, 'We are still making music.' We wanted to get out and just show that because after a while those 12 songs define you. That's who you are now."

Come to a Matchbox concert and Thomas wants you to be conscious of the energy they try to create in a room.

"We spent seven hours a day for a couple weeks going over all the guitar tones for all the songs, making sure everything sonically works and is as close to the right sound as we can find, so it sounds like a bigger and louder and more energetic version of the records," he says.

There's something special about being on stage in front of people, he says.

"You make a record, get it out there and hope people are checking it out and listening to everything on it. On stage it's instant gratification. If you mess up you know it or vice versa. Everything else is a necessary evil so we can play that record live."

Matchbox Twenty is a song-driven band, he says. "We always like to think there is not a lot of pretense in what we do. Everyone feels very fortunate to be where they are. Everyone has a really good time and puts everything aside for music. We all feel like we are in service of the music. None of us put ourselves ahead of that, no matter what else is going on."

Asked where he believes the band fits in the music scene, he suggests, "I like to think we comfortably take up the middle."

"There will always be a need socially for people such as Marilyn Manson or Limp Bizkit and people changing music technology, and people changing the image of music. And there's been consistent people like Tom Petty who put out a great record under the radar through grunge and other periods. That's where I hope to find us. We never have a huge backlash. We've never been terribly hip. Because of that I think we are able to just make records. That's what we do."

A lot of Thomas' writing is relationship-driven. "It's not necessarily romantic relationship by any means, but how people interact with people is fascinating to me," he says. "A song like 'Crush' is written about an old guitar player. It's like an open letter to an old friend who is not a friend anymore. If you really love or hate something, the difference to me is miniscule. The reaction is the same: you're red in the face, the heart flutters. That fascinates me."

He loves the universality of music. "Even though I wrote a song about something in my life, people can take it and apply it to their life. If we can provide that service, that's good enough."